Fire levels Accent Fuels/See photo gallery
HOMER CITY —The office and warehouse building of Accent Fuels Co. at 20 W. Indiana St. was destroyed early today by a fire of uncertain origin, a blaze fed by barrels of motor oil and diesel that triggered calls for firefighters from every corner of Indiana County.
Residents in nearby areas reported hearing explosions about 3:30 a.m. and afterward.
Firefighters strung out hoses to draw water from Two Lick Creek and Little Yellow Creek and shuttled tankers full of water to supplement the municipal water supply they tapped from hydrants, and the flames lit the sky until soon after sunrise.
[PHOTO: Numerous fire companies were called early this morning to fight a fire that destroyed the Accent Fuels storage facility in Homer City. (Tom Peel/Gazette photo)]
It was after 7:30 a.m. when firefighters dumped suppressant foam on the final visible flames, but plumes of smoke continued to pour from the rubble. The ground was blanketed with a haze and the strong smell of burning oil filled the air as far away as the Yankeetown neighborhood in Center Township.
The building housed two floors of company offices, and several trucks and cars were stored in the garage section of the building.
Supplies of motor oil, lubricants and grease were kept in barrels in the warehouse. Accent had no underground storage tanks on the site.
Accent Fuels bought the 17,000-square-foot building in 1998 from the former Tito Beverage beer distributor business, according to the owner, Mark Coleman.
“We lost four delivery trucks, a trailer and three other support vehicles,” Coleman said. The cars included his personal vehicles — a 1977 Triumph and a 1977 Mercury, which Coleman said was the first car he owned.
Along with the fuel business, the fire destroyed a floor supply store, Northeast Flooring, owned by Jason Buggey, and Coleman Supply, which also is run by Accent Fuels’ owner.
Terry Gardner, the second assistant chief of the Homer City Volunteer Fire Company, was in charge of firefighting operations at the scene.
“I live in Lucernemines and when I left my house, I could see the glow from there. We had a fully involved structure,” Gardner said. “We protected the exposures all around and that was key, because it was burning pretty good. The last thing we wanted to happen was to have the whole block go up on us.”
Firefighters protected an apartment building behind the Accent warehouse and evacuated residents from houses across the street.
West Indiana Street resident Matthew Taylor, his fiancee and their three children were awakened by the early-morning blaze.
As he raised a window blind to look at the burning structure right across the street, Taylor said, he could feel the heat of flames on the window panes.
“We thought it was going to melt everything,” he said.
Not long after, explosions rattled the home.
“It was like, ‘boom.’ We have to go,” Taylor said. “I took the kids and we ran as fast as we could.”
The family — along with their two dogs and Taylor’s parents, who also live on West Indiana Street — waited for several hours in a firetruck, watching the flames that, by Taylor’s estimates, reached from the 30-foot building to at least 50 feet in the air.
From the truck, Taylor could see what he described as “exploding propane tanks” landing in the street.
The firetruck that the family waited in had to retreat further from the scene as the fire grew in intensity.
Taylor wasn’t sure whether the family would return to their home today, he said, due to the smoke that permeated the area.
As morning sunlight filtered through the smoke, some West Indiana Street residents did return to their homes.
There was no damage to Taylor’s home, or others. Fire officials allowed West Indiana Street residents back inside before 8 a.m.
Residents on Saint Clair Street, located behind Accent, were still restricted from entering their houses around 8 a.m., according to Homer City Police Chief Louis Sacco.
Sacco praised the response of the numerous fire departments that responded to the scene.
“These firemen are amazing, that’s all I have got to say. With as big a building as this was, it could have been much worse,” he said.
Except for the various petroleum products that continued to feed the flames, the firefighters should have fully extinguished a fire in “a normal everyday run-of-the-mill” structure within the first three or four hours, Gardner said.
Officials from Indiana County Emergency Management Agency and Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection monitored for possible environmental problems and risks for hazardous materials.
John Pividori, deputy director of ICEMA, said the main threat was “hydrocarbon runoff, from diesel, grease and mostly motor oil” being washed away toward Two Lick Creek and Little Yellow Creek.
He said Accent’s owners had already hired McCutcheon Enterprises Co. to clean up the petroleum products from the site and try to curtail the runoff.
“Most of it was burned off … but we’re applying foam to try to knock down what is left of the flames,” Pividori said.
Gardner said firefighters first ran hoses from the nearest hydrants but soon had problems with low pressure and started getting water from the waterways.
Despite some challenges, Gardner said that “everything worked out for the best” in terms of fighting the fire, which was under control by about 5:30 a.m.
A responding tanker truck was in an accident while on the way to the scene.
In addition, one of the waterlines began to lose pressure as firefighters battled the blaze. Gardner attributed the trouble to a water main break.
“Right now we’re drafting from the creek in two different places, and we have tankers set up as a secondary supply,” he said. “We’re still able to use one hydrant on the lower end but we basically had to shut down one line.”
It took about 30 minutes to get trucks and tankers pumping water from nearby Yellow Creek, in a move Gardner described as “a little rural firefighting.”
“Once we got that established, it was under control again,” he said.
Robert Nymick, the Homer City Borough manager, said there was no problem with the municipal water system.
“The water is fine,” Nymick said. “The firemen don’t know — they grab a hydrant but it could be the same waterline. Everything is fine, everything is working. The town is in good shape.”
Nymick and other borough street department workers, and Robert Pozik, a supervisor of the Center Township road crew, all manually spread rock salt on the streets in the area where firefighters had been busy transferring water from tank trucks into temporary holding vessels.
The only injury involved a firefighter who was hurt when he slipped on ice, Gardner said. The firefighter was sent home.
According to the Indiana County 911 website, the first fire companies were dispatched to the blaze at 4:26 a.m.
Homer City firefighters had backup from the Coral-Graceton, Indiana, Black Lick, Brush Valley, Blairsville, Clymer, Creekside, Plumville and Armagh & East Wheatfield Township fire companies and the Indiana County rapid intervention team at the scene, according to 911. Firetrucks from the Commodore, Cherryhill Township and Tunnelton-Conemaugh Township fire departments also were at the site.
The 911 center reported that Clyde and Eastern Derry fire departments were on standby assignments.
Word of the fire spread quickly in social media, as nearby residents shared their accounts of the fire, along with photos and videos, on the Internet.
Randy Bourque, of Greenville Road, contacted the Gazette by email to share early photos of the burning building.
“I live a quarter mile from the fire and heard explosions about 4:15ish,” he said. “You could hear the canisters pop. There were multiple explosions. At one point the flames were going up 150 feet in the air, easily.”
Kate Zemlock posted photos of a house across from Accent Fuels, at 9 W. Indiana Ave., that she and her boyfriend, Michael Richie, own.
“We just bought it and haven’t moved into it yet. Shortly after the firetruck pictures, we were evacuated and more explosions went off. I was so scared that our new home was damaged,” Zemlock sent by message on Facebook.com
“I can honestly say it sounded like a war zone there for a while. Started a little before the 4 a.m. hour, and I could hear and feel the explosions in Lucernemines,” Todd Babco reported online.
“When the first set of explosions started it shook 2 pictures of the wall near my front door. I actually thought my neighbors were out shooting off guns at first, it was that loud.”
“I live one minute from Accent Fuels and we were woken up around 3:45 to the first explosions and they continued on and off for a few hours after that,” said Danielle Rura, of Sunrise Avenue. “We live on the other side of the bridge so we were not evacuated but there were a good handful of families that were evacuated.”
At the scene, several employees of the company approached the smoldering remains, capturing cellphone pictures in silence.
Jocelyn Plowcha, an office worker at Accent, was coming into work early when she saw the flames.
She declined to comment, aside from saying that her boss is a “wonderful man.”
Owner Mark Coleman praised the emergency services workers for limiting the fire and damage as much as they could.
“I want to thank all the firemen and emergency services people,” he said. “They did a heck of a great job. I was really worried about the neighbors but they are all OK.”
Cindy Coleman said the company employs about 20 workers. Some will remain at work because Accent has other fuel supplies, including home heating oil, and other service trucks in other locations in the Homer City and Brush Valley areas.